'60 "Freedom Summer" '90s Style

by Brenna Munro, NOW Intern

Thousands of college students will be going to California this summer for a massive voter registration drive that is my generation's version of the student civil rights work in the South back in the 1960s.

The Freedom Summer '96 project -- organized by the Campaign for Women's Rights and Civl Rights, of which the Feminist Majority, NOW, the YWCA, United Farm Workers and other allies are a part -- is named after the first Freedom Summer in 1964. Thousands of students went to Mississippi to join civil rights activists in registering unprecedented numbers of African Americans to vote. They drew national attention to racial injustice in the South and, subsequently, across the country. That initial Freedom Summer helped establish civil rights legislation.

In 1996 we are fighting to stop the destruction of those laws. A ballot measure to dismantle affirmative action programs and disable sex discrimination laws is up for a vote in California, and similar measures are threatened in Colorado, Florida, Oregon and Washington. Most of these efforts use deceptive language that reads like that of the civil rights movement but has vastly different intentions and implications.

For example, the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) in both its title and text appears to be pro-civil rights, but it would effectively abolish affirmative action in the state. It mentions ending "preferential treatment," when it means ending affirmative action programs that level the playing field for women and people of color.

CCRI's "Clause C" seems innocuous, but would nullify a strict standard of court protection against sex discrimination that has been the equivalent of an equal rights amendment in California. Under "Clause C," the existing standard of "strict" legal scrutiny of sex discrimination will be changed to a "reasonable basis" test, the lowest standard of judicial review. This means that almost any reason for discrimination may be ruled acceptable. If a fire department said it couldn't hire a woman because there weren't any women's bathrooms, that might be reason enough to exclude women.

Organizing to defeat the CCRI, part of the Campaign to Save Women's Rights and Civil Rights, is just one of the objectives of Freedom Summer '96.

Activists nationwide are forming teams of 15 people from their communities to take part in Freedom Summer '96. Students are fundraising and securing grants for their participation. On a recent speaking tour throughout California, Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal asked activists to provide housing for those Freedom Summer volunteers who need it.

Freedom Summer '96 offers a two-month internship opportunity, with sessions starting June 1 and July 1. Volunteers will be given a week's intensive training and then be deployed across California to distribute educational literature, staff phone banks and go door-to-door, workplace-to-workplace, to educate and mobilize voters. The activists will focus on 18 to 24-year-old voters -- the group least registered, potentially most progressive and most likely to identify as feminist.

Freedom Summer '96 was announced at the Expo '96 for Women's Empowerment held i Washington, D.C., in February. The Feminist Majority organized Expo '96 to reacquaint feminists with the power and possibilities of the feminist movement, easily underestimated in the face of media bias and the backlash from the right. Speaker after speaker -- from NOW President Patricia Ireland to Smeal, from U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., to political stalwart Bella Abzug -- expressed how moved and impressed they were to see so many young women at the Expo.

The diversity and the broad range of talent at the Expo, from union leaders to student leaders, provided a good forum for ideas and coalition building. The momentum kept building with young feminist organizing on high school and college campuses for the April 14 March to Fight the Right in San Francisco. At both the Expo and the March, we heard that we had to get people voting -- and voting for the right candidates.

That same young feminist energy present at Expo '96 and the Fight the Right March is expected to be harnessed by organizers of Freedom Summer '96. And a successful summer campaign could turn this crucial election year around.

This project, inspired by the civil rights movements of the '60s, is my generation's chance to make a difference. One day our daughters might ask, "Where were you in the summer of '96?" And we can say, "In California -- making a difference!"

For information about how you can take part, call NOW at 202-331-0066 or the Feminist Majority at 703-522-2214.

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